Winnipeg Sun with Lori Wilkinson 17 March 2018
When Ali Saeed came to Canada 33 years ago, mental health supports for refugees were nearly non-existent.
Saeed, whose story is displayed in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, got to the point where suicide was his only option.
Saeed, 62, shared his story at Support Refugee Mental Health and Trauma Issues, an event held at University of Winnipeg on Saturday to bring awareness to the need for better mental health supports for newcomers to Canada.
Before arriving in Canada, barefoot as a refugee in 1984, Saeed, had fled his home Ethiopia. To escape prison and torture, he trekked 500 kilometres across the Wuchallee desert to Somalia, only to be imprisoned and tortured there.
And things didn’t get much better when he arrived in Canada.
“My torturer was here in Canada, in the same city, when I arrived,” Saeed said on Saturday. “I was so frustrated, I tried to harm myself, commit suicide.”
Saeed, who runs the Ethiopian Society of Winnipeg, said within in the Ethiopian community in Winnipeg, it’s not drugs or gangs that are bringing his people down — it’s mental health issues.
“There are very few supports,” Saeed said. “There are some groups trying to help, but there are not enough resources.”
Dr. Lori Wilkinson, a sociologist at the University of Manitoba, spoke about how the country has over-estimated the needs of refugees.
She says the myth lies with people thinking that all refugees are traumatized and suffering from mental health issues because of where they’re coming from.
“Most mental health problems amongst refugees arise between six and 24 months after arriving in Canada,” she said. “Many of them are due to trying to learn a new language, getting a job and all the stressors of setting up a new life, not expecting to ever leave their old life.”
Wilkinson said those who are suffering from mental health issues often find it difficult to find help due to language barriers. Stigmas aren’t helping and wait times to see a counselor can take months.
Part of the failure is due to the system currently in place in the country.
“It’s failing a lot of people,” Wilkinson said, noting that the long-term cost of not treating mental health issues is far-reaching. “The problems start to fester and then they get worse before they see anyone.”
Saturday’s event also gave attendees the opportunity to sign a petition to urge the federal government to implement three recommendations.
The recommendations including providing refugees with enhanced access to mental health assessments upon first arriving in Canada if they require; allocating more funds towards support for mental health services for refugees; and ensuring shorter wait times for refugees seeking professional help for mental health support.
Saeed said you can walk outside and see immigrants walking by themselves, talking to themselves in the streets of Winnipeg.
“And how many more are sitting at home suffering by themselves?” he said.
Saeed said resources and support agencies are a must for newcomers, and there’s a massive need for more funding and people who can help.
“The government needs to take responsibility,” he said.